WARSAW — Poland’s new pro-EU government has taken sweeping steps to free state media from the political stranglehold imposed by eight years of Law and Justice (PiS) rule — but that’s set off a political war with the old ruling party.
The fight over who controls the media has drawn in President Andrzej Duda against Prime Minister Donald Tusk. There are also duelling chiefs of public television; one, Tomasz Sygut, appointed last week after Culture Minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz sacked his PiS-loyalist predecessor, while the sidelined media board appointed former PiS MP Maciej Łopiński to the same post.
The clash, and the way the new government has rammed home the changes at lightning speed, are also raising concerns that, like its predecessor, it may be overstepping the law to get what it wants.
Since taking office on December 15, Tusk’s Cabinet promptly fired and replaced the directors of state television, radio, and the Polish Press Agency (PAP), closed at least one station and canceled politically motivated programs and films. Under PiS, the constitutionally independent state media was used as an aggressive propaganda tool, attacking Tusk and the opposition while promoting the ruling party’s euroskeptic views.
The ongoing purge has been met with protests from PiS. The party and its loyalists have scrambled to appoint their own to key posts the new government is trying to fill and they are occupying buildings housing state television and the Polish Press Agency to challenge the changes and denounce the new government as an authoritarian trampler of media freedom.
President Duda, a PiS loyalist, has also disagreed with the way the changes are being carried out.
“A political goal cannot be an excuse for violating constitutional principles and the law,” he wrote on X last week.
On Saturday, Duda vowed to veto the new government’s amended 2024 spending bill and propose his own. The bill included 3 billion złoty for public media, which Duda opposed, although previous PiS budgets had included similar provisions. The spending bill also had money for raising teacher salaries, and the government is turning that into a weapon to attack Duda.
“The presidential veto takes away money from teachers,” Tusk tweeted.
Tusk justified the media changes by arguing they were aimed at undoing years of damage done by the old PiS government.
“Mr. President, as I have already informed you, today’s action is aimed — as you intended — at restoring legal order and common decency in public life. You can count on our determination and iron consistency in this matter,” Tusk said on X when he moved to purge the media.
During its time in power, PiS manipulated procedures and circumvented the constitution to gain control of media watchdogs and create a special government agency in charge of key appointments, allowing it to tighten its grip on public broadcasters. But with Duda as president, Tusk’s government has no hope of undoing those changes without running into his veto.
It also can’t turn to the country’s top court, the Constitutional Tribunal, as PiS illegally appointed judges to the body, undermining its credibility.
Not just PiS
But the ruthless way Tusk’s government has gone about purging the media of PiS loyalists is also raising eyebrows — and not just among PiS supporters.
Civil society groups and independent media are expressing concerns.
“There is no doubt … that the public media need urgent and thorough reforms,” the Polish NGO Helsinki Human Rights Foundation said in a statement. “We understand that the political and legal conditions make such reforms very difficult. However, we cannot overlook the fact that the way changes in public media have been initiated raises serious legal questions.”
Similarly, leading Polish independent media outlets said that changes to the public media “should take place in an orderly and legal manner that does not make journalists feel insecure.”
But orderly is the last thing that’s happening.
The new bosses of TVP are putting out news programs that aim to drop the bias of the past, although PiS supporters still see them as slanted — just away from them.
All the new managers are also trying to shore up their positions.
“The attack on TVP bears all the hallmarks of a coordinated operation to illegally take over public media in Poland,” Łopiński said in a statement that called the government-appointed management “usurpers” and threatened anyone involved with legal consequences.
Sienkiewicz, for his part, said Łopiński’s appointment was ”legally ineffective because it was made by an authority that does not exist.”
Piotr Zemła, the new head of the management board at public television, defended the position of the government-backed administration.
“The only current president of TVP S.A. is editor Tomasz Sygut,” he tweeted.